Mayor, shel­ter of­fi­cials talk im­age, fu­ture

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­news.com

In an hour-and-20-minute meet­ing with Cov­ing­ton Mayor Ron­nie John­ston, sup­port­ers of the lo­cal home­less shel­ter gave Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor the Rev. Clara Lett a vote of con­fi­dence and said the shel­ter was run ap­pro­pri­ately, but they did ad­mit that the board of direc­tors needed to im­prove its per­for­mance.

The meet­ing was called by Lett to ad­dress what she per­ceived to be harm­ful and dis­rup­tive com­ments about the shel­ter made by John­ston, who has made help­ing the shel­ter raise money and po­ten­tially re­struc­tur­ing its op­er­a­tions one of his per­sonal goals over the past three months ever since it went past due on util­ity pay­ments to the city and was on the verge of hav­ing its power cut off.

By the end of the meet­ing, a va­ri­ety of peo­ple had made their feel­ings known and ad­dressed what they would do go­ing for­ward, and the con­sen­sus seemed to be that the shel­ter’s cur­rent man­age­ment and board would be the one to work on any is­sues, at least for now, not those from out­side the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Shel­ter board mem­ber the Rev. Sam Per­ry­man, act­ing as spokesper­son for the shel­ter, ini­tially took is­sue with the board be­ing called in­ept be­cause of its in­abil­ity to have a quo­rum on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, but by the end of the meet­ing he agreed that the board would work to be bet­ter.

“You (re­fer­ring to John­ston) told us some of the things that are frus­trat­ing you about the Garden of Geth­se­mane and its struc­ture, we’ll work on the board,” Per­ry­man said. “We’ll do that, and let us in­vite you back.”

Mayor John­ston has pre­vi­ously called for a fi­nan­cial au­dit to make the

shel­ter’s op­er­a­tions more trans­par­ent and in­crease the pub­lic’s con­fi­dence in do­nat­ing to the shel­ter, but Per­ry­man said the board had the ut­most con­fi­dence in Lett’s man­age­ment and he noted that the shel­ter only had to report fi­nances to state and fed­eral agen­cies, not to Cov­ing­ton or the mayor.

Per­ry­man thanked John­ston for his in­put but said the board has never been dys­func­tional and that sev­eral mem­bers, in­clud­ing him­self, can’t at­tend many meet­ings be­cause they travel fre­quently for busi­ness. How­ever, he said he and board have al­ways re­viewed fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions and never found any fault there.

Per­ry­man and the Rev. Wil­lie James Smith, head of the New­ton County Min­is­ter’s Union, both told John­ston that he needed to apol­o­gize to Lett for the as­per­sions he’s cast on the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Dur­ing his part, John­ston said he did not in­tend for his com­ments to come across as crit­i­cal of Lett, but rather of the board and the fact there was no ac­tion by the board when it was past the verge of be­ing shut down.

John­ston got in­volved orig­i­nally be­cause former Cov­ing­ton mayor Sam Ram­sey, one of the shel­ter’s staunch­est sup­porter and the one who helped bring the shel­ter to Cov­ing­ton’s city lim­its, asked John­ston to help the shel­ter which didn’t have enough money to op­er­ate.

From John­ston’s per­spec­tive, be­ing past due on the util­ity bill was a cri­sis, yet no one was treat­ing it as such, which was frus­trat­ing. He helped raise more than $16,000 by per­son­ally plead­ing for do­na­tions in Oc­to­ber.

In at­tend­ing board meet­ings af­ter that, most of which didn’t have a quo­rum, John­ston grew frus­trated with what he saw as a con­tin­ued lack of ac­tion and di­rec­tion.

Ram­sey also spoke Wed­nes­day and said he agreed with many of John­ston’s con­cerns and said the shel­ter’s board did need to es­tab­lish pub­lic con­fi­dence. At one point, John­ston and county Com­mis­sioner Lanier Sims had pro­posed and of­fered to help with a full re­brand­ing of the shel­ter’s im­age in the hope that would lead to more com­mu­nity sup­port and do­na­tions.

He said he be­lieves if the shel­ter is run right it can get enough money in do­na­tions and grants to pay a full-time ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor in ad­di­tion to a grant writer.

How­ever, Rev. Smith said do­na­tions have stopped coming in be­cause of the mayor’s crit­i­cal com­ments, and Lett said vol­un­teers have stopped coming as well.

Lett also said she felt John­ston should have talked to her more, but John­ston said he felt he had reached out to her.

Lett said that the per­cep­tion of a neg­a­tive cloud hang­ing around the shel­ter was un­fair, be­cause much of its back-owed rent and util­ity pay­ments were the re­sult of poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion and is­sues reach­ing a for­mal agree­ment with the Cov­ing­ton Hous­ing Author­ity, which owns the three build­ings that com­prise the shel­ter.

She also pointed to an in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­ducted by the Ge­or­gia Sec­re­tary of State’s Of­fice which did not find any ev­i­dence dur­ing its in­ves­ti­ga­tion of mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of money food or cloth­ing.

How­ever, she also said she of­fered for­give­ness and said heal­ing was needed on all sides.

For his part, John­ston said he ap­plauded the board for its will­ing­ness to ex­am­ine it­self, though it’s un­clear how in­volved he will be mov­ing for­ward.

The shel­ter is in lit­tle dan­ger of hav­ing its util­i­ties cut off this month as it only has a util­ity bill of $375.27. That’s be­cause $11,270 was paid to the city in Novem­ber, re­sult­ing in an over-pay­ment of $2,430.74, which was ap­plied to De­cem­ber, ac­cord­ing to Cov­ing­ton Fi­nance Di­rec­tor Leigh Anne Knight.

In ad­di­tion, the city re­cently agreed to help out by re­duc­ing the num­ber of elec­tric­ity me­ters in the build­ings, which used to be mul­ti­ple units, from 11 down to three, which will re­duce the amount of money that has to be spent on base rate pay­ments.

Util­ity Di­rec­tor said the city would spend be­tween $1,000-$1,400 on ma­te­ri­als to make the changes; the work will be done by an elec­tri­cal con­trac­tor who wants to help the shel­ter. Meecham es­ti­mates the changes would save the shel­ter about $1,000 an­nu­ally.

How­ever, Ram­sey to­day put out a call for more do­na­tions, as Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary are typ­i­cally the year’s cold­est months and high­est util­ity bills.

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